Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Steve Martin writes a novel about the New York art scene in the later 20th Century

I was happy to see that Steve Martin had written another novel, and the premise of this one, which deals with the art world in the last decade of the 20th century, sounded more than engaging enough to recommend it.

An Object of Beauty

Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (295 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $26.99) is itself an object of beauty. There are several color illustrations in these pages, and often, as Martin discusses a particular work of art, he shows it. These color illustrations do a lot to bring the story alive. That is especially true because the story about the art of the age is even more compelling than the story about the girl, Lacey, who tries to make her living by dealing in art.

The story about Lacey is in fact a little strange. I suppose Martin means her as an everywoman of sorts. She is a beautiful and tough transplanted southerner who is making her way in New York. To do this, she walks all over the people she meets and seems constitutionally unable to maintain a relationship with a man. This makes sense because her deepest interest in life is her own advancement in the art world; and if she can be said to have an undying love, it is a love of art. Or at least it is a love of what art may be able to provide for her.

Her character is vaguely amoral—she is willing, for instance, to steal art right out of her grandmother’s sickroom—but it is hard to care enough about her to worry what she does or doesn’t do. She is an excuse for telling the story, it seems, and very little more.

The other odd effect in this novel is the narrator. An art critic, and someone who knows Lacey quite well, the narrator insinuates himself into various scenes and even has some ludicrously nefarious dealings with Lacey. But again it is hard to care; and in this case it is hard to imagine that the narrator cares much about representing himself or his own needs.

What is represented, though, is the art scene of the 1990’s and the first years of the twenty-first century. Martin does a wonderful job of presenting the art world: the artists, the galleries, and the collectors of that heady era when the value of art seemed to do nothing but soar.

Lacey is caught up in the contemporary scene, and by following her as she tricks her way into the fast lane and then establishes a reputation and eventually a gallery, we keep our fingers on the pulse of the art scene. Martin represents a range of practitioners, and he manages to set a world wide stage with deftness and clarity. I, for one, felt that I learned a lot reading this novel.

I think this bodes well for Martin as a novelist. If he can create characters that matter, then he will be a long way toward writing the great novel of which I think he is more than capable.

Steve Martin

Get a copy of An Object of Beauty at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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